Monday, July 29, 2013

Family Superpower

I spend a lot of time with youth and young adult literature. Many of these feature young people with special powers, or at least special skills: magic (Harry Potter), electrical powers (Michael Vey), psychic control of objects (Freakling), wind (The Goose Girl), archery and strategy (Ranger’s Apprentice and Hunger Games). A young person goes about life thinking he/she is normal, or even less than normal, and then gets thrust into extraordinary circumstances that require using the newly discovered special skills.

There’s something fairly positive in the message that everyone has value, and everyone is important and special in some way. You just need to find your talent/purpose/superpower to benefit mankind.
I have been considering the idea that, in the ordinary real world we live in, some of us have significant advantages, just because of a connection to what has for millennia been ordinary: growing up in an intact, loving family.
The social data continues to grow, all of it showing advantages to children raised in intact families with married mother and father. I’ve written about the value of family, mothers, fathers, and marriage many times (a good starting list is in the April 23, 2012 post “More on Marriage”). I’ve written a few times (see “Family Ties to Economics” December7, 2012) about the well-established formula for preventing poverty:
1.         Don’t have sex before age 20.
2.         Don’t have sex until after marriage.
3.         Stay married.
4.         Obtain at least a high school diploma.
But what if there is an additional formula, not just for avoiding poverty, but for likely greater success? Last year I wrote  about Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart, which described four founding principles: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religion. These were agreed upon as essential virtues by all the founders. They are agreed on as virtues today generally in the most successful areas (Murray referred to them as the SuperZips, identifying certain zip codes). The upper middle class adheres to these principles, and is thereby perpetuating success generation after generation, while lower middle class and lower class areas (by income and education) lack religious commitment, intact families, honesty, and all the behaviors that prevent decay.
As I write about at the Spherical Model, the answer to greater success is what it has always been for thriving civilization: strictly live the civilizing principles (essentially the Ten Commandments) and value family. Family is the way the civilizing principles pass from generation to generation. Schools can’t do it, especially without the support of the home. Government can’t do it. Without family, even the churches can’t do it.
I have a story, from almost two decades ago, that shows the passing on of the values. It was when our second son was in I believe fifth grade (still in public school at that point), and they were going through the first iteration of basic sex education. I had been to the school and reviewed the curriculum and talked with the school nurse ahead of time. While I would have preferred handling this entirely at home, this was before I became a homeschooler, and I felt satisfied with the way the school was teaching the information (family values included in that rather civilized corner of the country). Economic Sphere, as he frequently did, was excited about new information, and started a series of “did you know…” quiz questions when he got home. One of the surprising pieces of information was that children could be born even when their parents weren’t married. So we had a teaching moment.
Back in the day, our boys learning
superpower skills from their dad
At that time there was a young woman from our church, age 17, I think, who got pregnant and was going through the natural consequences. She was repentant, and wanted to repair her life and set things right. The young man was going off to college in another state, and they realized they did not want to be married. So she worked through the possibility of giving up the baby for adoption, a difficult decision for a young woman. Consulting with her parents, she concluded that placing the child with a married couple who had the same religious beliefs as her family would be best for the baby.
Even with that best-case scenario, the decision was heartbreaking. Then it was made more so when the young man’s parents insisted that, if she was going to give up the baby, they would adopt it, because letting go of a grandchild was unacceptable. In that state, they had the right to override the mother’s decision about who should get to adopt her child. She didn’t want them to raise her child; they might be loving grandparents, but they hadn’t done so well at raising the baby’s father, and she really wanted her child raised in her religion. So she chose to keep the child.
She had loving parents who helped out for several years, allowing her to live with them as needed while she went through nursing school so she could support herself and the child. At the time of the conversation with my son, the decision was made to keep the child, and I believe the child had been born. Economic Sphere and I talked about how the child would be surrounded by people who loved him: both parents would be involved, and all four grandparents. But that child would never have the opportunity to live in a home with both parents at the same time.
It was a major “aha” moment. The starkness of that lack of both parents in the home was very clear—and practically unthinkable. Any child could see that you need both a father and a mother. No other arrangement fills the child’s needs.
Because of the way we lived, and because of the clarity of contrast, we had that opportunity to pass along essential values to a son at a young age—so the decision about risky behavior was made years before teenage hormones could interfere with the brain. That is the power of families. Teaching moments like that come up day by day through the years, continually building the power.
I don’t want single mothers and fathers to feel worse about their situation. They may want the best for their children as much as married mothers and fathers. And there is nothing that says they can’t succeed. There is simply the fact that the odds are against them. Church, neighborhoods, community organizations like sports leagues and scouts can help make up for deficits in single parent families. But only if the social capital cost isn’t overwhelming. In the better neighborhoods, the SuperZips that Charles Murray illustrates, the few exceptions to intact families are easily floated aloft with the strong families. But in the already struggling neighborhoods, there’s not enough social capital to make up for the overwhelming deficit.
The idea that a marriage can always break up if things get tough is a tempting escape. One of the strongest incentives to work on a marriage and make it better comes from growing up in families that stayed together. I find myself feeling grateful that all three of my children married people who came from such families. Mr. Spherical Model and I both came from such parents. And grandparents. And great-grandparents. Our tradition of lasting families is not a guarantee that families will always last, but it is an extra power.
If you want to give your children even more power, practically a superpower in today’s world, save sex for marriage; choose wisely who to marry, stay married forever, and take your children to church with you. And then let your children know the value of the gift you’re giving them, so they will value it in the generations to come.

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